Middle Grade Historical Fiction
The Incredible Journey of Freddy J.
Freddy penguin-walked and twirled the stickball stick, just like Charlie Chaplin twirling his cane in The Goldrush. The boys guffawed and Rudy fell off the stoop, he laughed so hard. Freddy grinned.
In the distance, Freddy heard the streetcar bell and his grin disappeared. “Rudy, meet me by the car barn after supper, will ya?” he called. He ran to his front porch and grabbed the tin pail. The buttons on his knickers were loose, and the heavy cuffs flapped against his shins. He might only be ten, but Poppa wouldn’t like it if Freddy looked like a bum. The car was still a block away. Dropping the pail, he buttoned his knickers below his knees.
Poppa stepped from the streetcar and handed Freddy a quarter. “No vasting time. Ve got some tings to talk about. Come straight home from de Schenke.” They didn’t speak German much since the Great War, but when Poppa spoke, his thick, guttural accent turned “w’s” into a “v’s” and the soft “th” sounds into hard “d’s” or “t’s.”
Poppa turned and walked away.
“Well, that don’t sound like good news,” Freddy muttered as he walked to the speakeasy behind the grocery store. Prohibition had sent all the bars into back allies.
Freddy hurried. He had seen the back of Poppa’s hand enough times to know not to make him wait.
Pushing his way to the bar, he put his pail on it. He could barely see over the tall counter, but Otto knew who he was and what he wanted. And he knew better than to give Freddy a pail of foam.
“How you doin’, kid?” Otto smiled down at him. “Got a quarter today?”
Freddy slapped the quarter down and watched Otto fill the pail and scrape foam off with a knife before setting the lid on. The Cubs game blared from the radio behind the bar. Grover Cleveland Alexander was pitching against the Boston Braves, and the Cubs weren’t doing too well.
“Stupid Cubs! When’s the last time they had a real team?” some guy at the bar growled.
Someone answered, “Got Alexander and Lefty Tyler in 1918 and dat was sposta do it. It’s been eight years and nothin’!” He slammed his mug on the bar and pointed to it, letting Otto know he wanted another.
“Hey!” Freddy said. “Alexander’s a great pitcher. If anyone can help the Cubbies pull this out, it’s him.” Freddy didn’t like hearing guys talk bad about the Cubs. He loved them and would like to hang around to listen to the game but didn’t dare.
Otto pushed the pail across, shook his head slightly, and said, “Don’t you know bein’ a Cubs fan is gonna break your heart, kid?” All the men laughed.
Freddy took the pail, walking as quickly as he could without sloshing. It was only two blocks to home, but the heavy wire handle cut into his hands. His arms ached by the time he set the pail on the sink-board. He pumped cool water to help work the kinks from his fingers.
When he turned around, Poppa loomed over him. Poppa had changed out of his dirty work clothes and was ready for his beer. He lifted the lid on the pail and nodded with a satisfied look. “No vasteful foam. Das ist gut. And you didn’t spill none. Ya. Sehr gut.”
Good he got it right. Sometimes it seemed he couldn’t do anything to please Poppa.
Poppa took a heavy glass mug from the cupboard and dipped it into the beer. He drank the mugful without a breath and filled it again. He sat heavily at the kitchen table and kicked another chair out from under it.
“Come. Ve talk.” He nodded toward the chair.
A whisper of feet shuffled behind the partly-closed door to the hallway. His older sisters, Emmi and Gertrud, peeked between door and frame. Emmi crouched down so Trudy could see over her, and Emmi wiggled her forefinger at Freddy as if waving hello. Freddy crossed his eyes and made a face. Emmi covered her mouth, but Trudy shook her head.
Freddy sat. His feet didn’t quite reach the floor, and he swung them without thinking.
Poppa drank off another half glass of beer and wiped flecks of foam from his bushy mustache. His sharp blue eyes drilled through Freddy and pinned him there.
“Momma been getting sicker and sicker. Doctor says she needs better medicine and food. More meat and such. You vant Momma to get vell, don’tcha?” Poppa said.
“Of course, Poppa. We all want Momma to get well.”
Freddy searched his memory, trying to figure out when she had first gotten sick. It was a few days before Christmas. Now in August, she was still staying in bed.
Trudy had stayed home from school since third grade to help around the house. Poppa said girls didn’t need to go to school, so when Momma got sick, Emmi stayed home too. Even though Trudy was only fourteen and Emmi twelve, they took care of all Momma’s needs, cooking for her and dressing her, gently bathing her and helping her turn so she wouldn’t get sores. Trudy whizzed around with brooms and rags, keeping everything shining. When Freddy smelled delicious aromas, he knew Emmi was in the kitchen, working her magic with vegetables from the garden the three of them kept in the back yard.
But they all worried – his sisters and even his grown brothers, Walter and Karl, who came by at least two or three times a week after work.
Freddy helped Momma walk to the back porch each afternoon to sit in the sun for a little. He was almost as tall as she was, and he thought he probably weighed more. He surely was stronger. When she laid her hand on his arm, it was as if a dry autumn leaf had landed there. Sometimes he thought he should carry her out, but she was so fragile; he was afraid she would break or fly away on a puff of wind.
Poppa picked up the salt shaker and sprinkled some in his beer. “Dey are cutting back hours at da factory. Dey only gonna pay us to vork ten hours each day and only half a day on Saturdays.” He stared at the table top, then picked up the glass and drained it again. “You’re gonna need to go, Freddy. Ve can’t afford to keep you.”
Freddy heard a quiet sob from behind the door. When he looked, Trudy was gone, but Emmi remained, her eyes wide and full. Freddy swallowed hard.
“What do you mean go, Poppa? Go where?” Freddy tried to look into his Poppa’s eyes, but Poppa wouldn’t look at him. Poppa took his jackknife out, opened the little blade, and started to clean the black from under his cracked, blunt fingernails.
Poppa wouldn’t look up. “Ve don’t got enough. You’re a man now. You need to go.”
“Poppa,” Freddy said, almost a whisper, “Please, Poppa. I don’t know where to go. I can find milk bottles and turn ‘em in. Or carry shopping for rich ladies. I have to get your beer every day. The girls can’t do that. Maybe Otto down at the bar will lemme sweep and mop. I won’t eat much. I can —”
“Stop!” Poppa thundered, his fist hitting the table hard. The salt shaker fell over, spilling on the table top. Freddy stared. That was bad luck. He should throw some over his shoulder, but he couldn’t move.
Poppa stood and walked to the sink-board to fill his glass.
Freddy stared at the pail. It had cost a quarter. A QUARTER! And Poppa had one every day. But he couldn’t afford to keep his son.